My Turn: What I've Missed With My Camcorder

I am a card-carrying parent of this generation—a memory-card-carrying member, that is. My husband and I started early: as soon as we found out I was pregnant, we began poring over ratings of video cameras alongside cribs and changing tables. And while the furniture gathered dust in the nursery as we waited for the baby, the video camera was pressed into action. We filmed monthly belly profiles—watching mine grow, and watching my husband's in hopes that it wouldn't. We filmed shopping for the baby: pressing on crib mattresses, walking through forests of highchairs, pushing strollers up and down aisles in baby stores.

As our family has grown, we've continued documenting it. Whatever our children's roles have been in holiday programs, recitals and sporting events, our roles have been as recorders of these experiences. We are part of the herd in the back of the auditorium, holding devices aloft, alternately beaming smiles from the side of the camera and glancing into the viewfinder to keep our kids in frame. My parents had a movie camera, but the total assembled Super 8 reels from my childhood leave ample room in a shoebox. Contrast this with cassettes from our first Betacam spilling out of boxes in our garage. Some are labeled—FIRST STEPS, EATING PEAS, DANCING AT GRANDPA'S HOUSE, DEER IN YOSEMITE—but recent tapes are simply dated. My fantasy of retirement involves learning how to use an editing program and creating coherent rolls from all that footage.

Recently I hit a rough patch with my 11-year-old daughter. I forgot to bring the video camera to a performance at her school—not entirely accidentally, given the resentful air between us—and felt no imperative to stop to buy a disposable camera. At the school, parents who had attended rehearsals approached me. Did I know how talented my daughter was? Did she have an agent? I live in Los Angeles in an era of child idealization ("Good breathing, Cameron!"), so I confess I didn't make much of it.

Late in the program, her class took the stage—my daughter at the center, with her own microphone. They began to sing Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." At the conclusion of the first, grand operatic chorus, my daughter stepped forward. With a small grin, bright eyes and a quality of self-possession that I had never seen in her before, she focused into the darkened audience and began to sing the solo part. I knew nothing about this ahead of time; it was meant as a surprise. She sang in a high, clear soprano voice that stunned me. I don't recall taking a breath. More chorus; another clear, pure solo. She didn't waver. She didn't rush. She didn't make any embarrassed-looking, apologetic gestures for taking ownership of the stage—of herself—in those moments. At the conclusion, I was crying. I felt as if I were vibrating. This was not because her voice had been so good. It was because it had been so much her own.

I could have kicked myself for not bringing the video camera, but a friend suggested otherwise: that not filming was what allowed me to have the unadulterated joy of this experience. Freed from the demand to document what was happening, I could live it. I think of other instances when I've caught glimpses of the people my children are developing into—moments that come when I don't expect them and haven't prepared myself to receive them. When I found my daughter sobbing on the sofa at 4 years old, watching the film "Benji," and she tearfully explained, "He doesn't have anyone to love him," there was no video to capture it, but my memory of it is indelible, and recalling it still makes me catch my breath.

Quantum physics posits that the essential nature of a phenomenon is changed by the act of measuring it, and I know this idea has applications here. Our cameras come between us and what we document. How many moments have I missed—or altered—in an effort to capture them for all time? While I'm sorry I can't share my daughter's recent solo with relatives and we don't have a hard copy for the future, the moment wouldn't have been the same for me had I been fumbling with the electronics. Selfish? Maybe. But having seen my daughter as clearly as I did that night, I have been thinking about our conflicts and realize that while they are maddening, they are a function of her struggle for the self-determination that will allow her to stand up and do more on her own, as her own person. The unfolding of this process is a marvel of raising children. How much of it I try to capture on tape in the future remains to be seen.